Making a Full-Bodied Red Wine

January 5, 2024

spectrum-of-red-wines

As far as we are concerned, there is nothing like a full-bodied dry red wine.  Many (wine snobs, in our opinion) prefer a delicate, light wine like Pinot Noir or Beaujolais.  We prefer the bold reds that are characteristic of the new world (especially California), Southern Italy, Spain and Portugal.  These wines are typically higher in alcohol content, are dark red to black, with more fruit than mineral characteristics and are high in tannins.  We typically strive to make “big reds.”

There are a number of factors to be considered when making a full-bodied red; some originate at the vineyard level, while others are determined by the winemaker.  We will address the major factors that determine boldness, and how they enter into our decisions on choice of grapes and winemaking techniques that we at Papa Joe’s use to make our wines.

The first step in the winemaking process is the choice of grapes selected to make wine.  The varietal of grape used and the climate in which the grapes are grown are the predominant factors in the selection stage.  Dark color, as well as level of tannins, are largely determined by  the ratio of skins to juice: thick-skinned grapes like Tannat and Tempranillo, and grapes that are small in size, like Petite Sirah, can make very dark, full bodied wines.   Grape seeds are also rich in tannins, so grapes with more seeds also tend to produce full-bodied wines.  The most popular full-bodied red wine, Cabernet Sauvignon, has moderately thick skins and a relatively small fruit.

Grapes grown in a warm climate, especially where the nights are relatively cool, attain maximal ripeness, high sugar content, and prominent but soft tannins.  Allowing the grapes to ripen to 23-26 brix (%sugar) will maximize the alcohol content and color of the wine, and softens the potentially harsh tannins in the seeds.  We are fortunate enough to have a grape supplier who understands this, and provides us with grapes from growers who know the best time to harvest the grapes.  It makes it a little difficult for us to plan crushing and fermenting, because we generally only know 5 days to a week ahead of time when our grapes will be available, but the quality of the grapes he provides is more than worth the uncertainty.

Now that we have chosen the grapes and relied upon the vineyard to harvest them at the perfect time, we get to do our thing: let’s make some wine!!   Anyone who has spoken to Papa Joe about wine has heard him say the key to making good wine is “use the best grapes you can get your hands on and Don’t fuck it up.”   If that seems oversimplified, even Papa Joe will admit it is.  There is a lot to not fucking it up.  The most important factor in maximizing the character of wine is prolonged contact between the juice and the skins after crushing.  Too many Pennsylvania wineries who use awesome grapes from California (or even Australia, South America, or South Africa) succumb to the temptation of saving money and work by buying high quality grape juice.  In our opinion, this results in an end product that is good, but is lacking in character; that character is body, mouth feel, and finish.  Papa Joe (me) says “If you want to skip this crucial step, make white wine, or even rose’.” We like a good white or rose’ as much as anyone, but those are different drinks than red wine.  This may piss some people off, but for the same reason we prefer a great Cab to a Pinot Noir we want to take full advantage of the fact that the color and tannins (everything we believe makes red wine great) will not be effectively extracted from the skins immediately on crushing.

From a scientific perspective, we rely on osmosis over an extended period to passively extract the good shit from the skins (good shit being a scientific term, obviously) and allowing it to pervade the juice.  This can be done by cold soaking or fermenting the must (the crushed grapes with the stems removed) for 4-10 days before pressing the juice.  Some winemakers prefer cold soaking unfermented must, others prefer starting the fermentation while the juice and skins are still in contact.  The difference is an is beyond the scope of what we are discussing today: suffice it to say that contact with skins before pressing maximizes the body of a red wine.  In our experience, there is not a lot of advantage to prolong this process much longer than 4 days, although some very good winemakers will not press for weeks, and a few for months.  The fact that some very good wine makers insist 4 days is enough, and some other very good wine makers insist contact should be for weeks supports our conclusion that it doesn’t make a hell of a lot of difference.

The final variable is the yeast used.  While all of the aforementioned factors are key to making a full-bodied red, the effects of choice of yeast (as long as the yeast is a good wine yeast) are subtle.  We always stress the importance of using sulfite to kill off the wild yeasts present in the grapes to prevent a bad fermentation, virtually all of the commercially available yeasts will make an acceptable wine under most conditions.  There are differences that have to be considered, but the specifics of that issue are for another discussion.  There are probably 100 yeasts or more that will be result in a great full-bodied wine if you follow the directives above, but we have found one yeast, BM 4X4, that we use for all of our reds. We have found BM 4X4 to maximize the fruitiness and desirable tannin extraction, BM 4X4 is also hearty enough to withstand an alcohol content of 16%.  Our reds are generally 14-16% alcohol, because our growers agree with us that 24-26 brix is ideal for a high quality red wine, and they avoid the temptation to harvest before the grapes are completely ready.

That’s all we have to say about that today.  We hope we have provided some valuable insight, but not enough that you start making better full-bodied wines than Papa Joe.  We have inserted a chart of red wine color and boldness for your reference.

spectrum-of-red-wines

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